#12: True diversity

A do-or-die organizational problem—and how to solve it.

Yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to develop practical insights about not-knowing. The ideas below are likely to be only partially baked.

Greetings from Los Angeles where pretty much every day has been dry, clear, and nearly warm enough to be outside in a t-shirt.

Last year, thanks to Friends in High Places, I started advising the Wellcome Collection on improving diversity and inclusion. We met as an advisory board twice in December and January—this may be why organizational diversity is on my mind. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about diversity in the context of innovation and adaptation to change.

Though innovation and adaptation are both difficult for organizations, they’re no longer optional. Both are already enormously important for both for- and non-profit organizations—and they’ll become even more important in the future. In industry after industry, the ability to continually develop new products and services is becoming increasingly important to success and even to basic survival. This has already happened in consumer electronics, entertainment, food, music, fashion, and news. It will happen elsewhere too. (A few days ago, I talked to someone in the pharmaceuticals industry—I’m willing to bet that industry will phase-change into a high-frequency innovation pattern as soon as the logic of individualized therapeutics takes hold and regulation adjusts).

And the world is changing. In a simpler, less interconnected, less interdependent world, any change or disturbance was less likely to spread outside of the local context or have unexpected side-effects. A bank failure in the US even three decades ago would have been unlikely to trigger a financial meltdown even in the West. But in 2008, a bank failure in the US led to an enormous financial crisis in every major economy and many of the developing economies too. In our more complex, highly interconnected and interdependent present, disturbances have more unanticipated side effects which ripple further out than before.

Unanticipated and unanticipatable change is going to become the rule, not the exception—and it will come from directions and in forms that will themselves be difficult or impossible to predict.

Diversity mitigates the innovation and adaptation problem for organizations—but not the kind of diversity nearly every conventional diversity programs aim to create.

A typical conventional diversity program tries to make sure there are enough yellow (or brown or black), straight (or gay or trans), old (or young or middle-aged), female (or male) employees so that the relative size of these populations in the organization meets some predetermined criteria.

Bluntly, this way of thinking about diversity is incorrect. It is overly simplistic and static—it begins and ends with the wrong measure of diversity.

Human societies continually evolve, so new categories of people continually emerge. (Imagine categorizing yourself as a natural wine drinker 40 years ago, or as a transhumanist 20 years ago). When diversity is defined solely in terms of predefined categories (brown, straight, male, etc), efforts to promote diversity naturally exclude people who fall into categories that haven’t yet emerged.

Worse, by being simplistic and static and not recognizing the continual evolution of human society and its categorizations, the conventional, predefined-category view of diversity defeats its own goals: it continually creates new forms of hidden discrimination, especially against categories of people which have just emerged or are emerging.

A better—true-er—way to think about diversity in an organization is in terms of multidimensional and multilevel difference.

True diversity reflects at least three types of difference: 1) relative magnitudes of difference between individuals within the organization as a whole, 2) relative magnitudes of differences between teams in the organization, and 3) multiple dimensions of difference (ie, ways of being different) within the organization and its teams.

A simpler way to say it is: true diversity is how rich an organization is in different types of information—no matter what form those differences take. True diversity is therefore analogous to a diversified portfolio of investment in the capacity to innovate and adapt. (I have a more detailed and systematic explanation of true (i.e., multilevel and multidimensional) diversity here.)

When seen as information diversity, it becomes clear how true diversity supports innovation and adaptation.

Innovation occurs through a host of mechanisms. One of the most important mechanisms is recombination—mixing old information in new ways that are newly useful. The more information an organization contains (carried primarily in its employees), the larger the pool of information from which recombinant innovations can emerge. This is why truly diverse organizations are more innovative.

Any piece of information in an organization is more or less adapted to specific environmental states. For instance, in a country where climate and geography make growing wheat cheap and easy, a farm whose management has special expertise growing wheat naturally performs better than a farm whose management is specialized in growing rice—wheat-specialist farms would be highly adapted to this environment.

If the environment suddenly becomes wetter and hotter, growing wheat becomes both hard and expensive, while growing rice becomes both easy and cheap. In the changed environment, rice-specialist farms will perform relatively better than wheat-specialist farms. When such an environmental change occurs, all else equal, a farm with both wheat-specialist and rice-specialist employees will perform better than one with only wheat-specialist employees.

An organization’s employees thus represents a store of potentially useful information for responding to change in the environment. The more unpredictably changeable the environment is, the more essential it is to have an organization which contains more (and more different types of) information.

Thinking about diversity like this allows us to promote it more effectively. An unconventional program to promote true diversity would not focus on beefing up the numbers of underrepresented and predefined categories. Instead, it would have three principal goals:

  1. Inject unexpected new and different information into the organization,

  2. Discover new and different information already present within the organization,

  3. Actively evolve definitions of difference within the organization.

There are many practical ways to build this form of not-knowing into the organization. Many of them are doable at the managerial level (in case senior leadership is seriously asleep at the wheel). Just three interrelated small ideas here:

  1. Create or modify hiring processes so that new employee roles are only partially defined and thus must be actively negotiated—thus injecting unexpected new skills or information into the organization with every new employee;

  2. Change review and promotion processes so that part of each employee’s evaluation criteria is self-defined with input from management—thus allowing employees to reveal unexpectedly useful individual skills or capacities;

  3. Provide training for employees in articulating the special value of new forms of difference for the organization’s survival and success—thus implicitly valorizing employees who are different in ways which haven’t yet been recognized.

It’s eminently feasible for organizations to think in this more realistic, dynamic, and nuanced way about diversity. More importantly, it’s highly pragmatic. Because true diversity is essential for innovation and adaptation, the organization which fails to think and act correctly on diversity will first endanger its chances at success, then its likelihood of survival.

The night life—pro and con.

Previous issues can be found here. You can find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#11: Productive discomfort

Why you should want to do what you have to do anyway.

Yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to develop practical insights about not-knowing. The ideas below are likely to be only partially baked.

I’ve had an uncomfortable month.

I’ve been doing some new research that touches a domain I once worked in but haven’t touched for nearly a decade—during which the technology has changed dramatically. The people I’m talking to for this project are corporate lawyers, barristers, and fund managers—quite different from whom I normally interact with.

Initially, I had no idea what was going on. My domain knowledge seemed outdated. I couldn’t understand the system of priorities we were operating in. The vocabulary used to describe the situation and negotiate strategy was particular to this intersection of two extremely technical areas—so I spent a lot of time asking really basic, stupid-seeming definitional questions. I was also asked to perform roles which were not well defined and which evolved rapidly.

At the same time, I was juggling other personally important work. In early December, I got copy edits back for my book (I’ve come to think of it as my eternal albatross), and had to enter the changes and index the manuscript. For uninteresting and unavoidable technical reasons, entering the copyedits into the manuscript files took nearly two weeks. The indexing took longer. Never having indexed a book before, I didn’t know what I was in for. The best way to describe it is: indexing is turning a book inside-out to reveal its skeleton and make explicit the logical structure of ideas on which it is built.

Professional indexers become adept at this kind of simultaneous structural inspection and construction, but “steep learning curve” is an understatement. Being able to keep this structure aloft and in view (metaphorically) while reading and annotating a manuscript and adding to the structure is a skill that takes a long time to acquire. Without it, three days in, I was deep in the weeds. I’ve had more very late nights and very early mornings this month than I’ve had in many years.

But the month has also felt manageable and been productive. I’m learning to speak a new language about a particular technology that makes sense to lawyers and fund managers. The corrected and indexed manuscript is now back with the publisher and the book’s publication date will soon be set (I cannot wait to never have to deal with the book in manuscript form ever again).

So I could say that I’ve had a sort-of-enjoyable month of profound and professionally consequential discomfort. Though the steepness of the numerous learning curves I’ve been on was often frustrating, it never felt overwhelming. I could always think of the discomfort as something to be thought through and worked out.

This raises the question: What makes it possible to perceive and treat even profound cognitive discomfort as something productive? My half-baked answer is that it probably begins with micro-exposures to situations where uncomfortable ideas are unavoidable.

By nature, I enjoy routine too much and easily become trapped in it. Yet, starting in college, I picked up what seemed to be an inexplicable meta-habit of periodically disrupting some of my biggest routines, either by changing them or by injecting new and inconvenient problems—especially around geography and career.

The seed of this meta-habit was a pair of classes I took from a range designed for first-year students: all small, all seminars (instead of lectures), and all on narrow topics the seminar leaders were interested in which were therefore not clearly (or at all) connected to fulfilling prerequisites for any of the majors. I took one seminar on ancient Mesopotamian seals (not the animals—that cylinder below is in Metropolitan Museum’s collection), and another on field research at the Harvard Forest.

Image result for mesopotamian seal

One approach to course selection in college is to optimize for efficiency—getting the requirements done as early as possible so that you can “enjoy” college more. The other approach is unstrategic and inefficient, featuring classes that have no clear utility and thus slow you down. These two seminars slowed me down. They were seemingly useless because I had no intention of becoming either an art historian or a forest biologist. They were also hard in a different way of thinking about the word.

The seal seminar was taught by Irene Winter, a MacArthur Prize-winning art historian of the ancient Near East. Irene was (still is) intolerant of superficial understanding and impatient with learning by rote. It was not an easy seminar, therefore. The basis of understanding, the technical vocabulary, and the approaches to analysis used in art history were entirely unfamiliar to me. There was a lot of catching up to do. I initially wondered why I’d done this to myself. (Everyone should have the good fortune of being taught by someone like this.) The Forest seminar in my second term was the same again, but in a different field with different methods, vocabulary, and assumptions (that of landscape history and ecosystem biology).

These seminars paid off in an unexpected way: they were distinctly, but gently, uncomfortable introductions to two different fields of scholarly research. Any discipline comes with its own deeply buried conceptual framework, visible generally only when you’re first learning it because of the discomfort of learning something new. The deeper you get into the discipline, the more its assumptions and concepts become second nature and so fade from view. The cognitive discomfort of learning two new ways to think was gentled because the seminars were graded Pass/Fail only—failing was unlikely (even if getting a very good grade was equally unlikely) so the stakes were pretty low. The discomfort was manageable.

The discomfort was beneficial because it was immediately clear how it gave access to new ways of viewing (and thus potentially solving) problems in other disciplines. And the discomfort was explicitly cognitive (the result of being exposed to different ways of thinking about data) so it was easier to treat as a cognitive problem to be solved instead of an emotional one (panic, depression, etc).

I was lucky to encounter these seminars early in college because they were probably among the first—very small—steps I remember taking to voluntarily expose myself to cognitively uncomfortable situations. They demonstrated that the discomfort of the new and unfamiliar could be electively processed in the head as a problem to be explored and solved rather than being processed in the gut as stress and anxiety. And that processing discomfort as a problem to be solved made it possible to benefit from the learning that was the byproduct of trying to solve the problem. (And also that uncomfortable situations may feel disastrous but rarely actually are disastrous.)

Important: I’m not advocating taking seminars in Mesopotamian seals or forest biology. Instead, I’m pointing to these seminars as examples of low-level sources of cognitive discomfort with properties that made them more likely to be productive. For me, they were the seeds of a way to frame discomfort as something to seek out, not avoid, because it could potentially benefit me long-term.

In this framing, I can re-interpret many of my hard-to-justify life choices (leaving Google to work at an art school for a summer, moving from a city I enjoyed living in to a different country I wasn’t sure about, etc) as half-conscious decisions to periodically force myself outside my own comfort zone.

These decisions were driven by the again half-conscious belief that (a) the discomfort would be ultimately manageable and (b) that some learning would result that would make the discomfort worthwhile. To date, these half-conscious beliefs have mostly been accurate. Most times I did this, my baseline level of acceptable discomfort would tick upward.

We’re used to the idea of progressively escalating physical activity in order to build physical capacity—resistance weight training and marathon training programs, to name two examples. Progressive escalation works only when each progression pushes the individual beyond existing capacity by enough to develop that capacity, but not by so much that the individual is destroyed by it. We’re much less used to this idea of progressive overload in application to cognitive activity, as a way to train cognitive or emotional capacity.

Though rarely mainstream, a wide variety of more or less formalized practices already exist for doing this. For instance, last week a friend and colleague in Singapore sent a note about a highly formalized practice for this cognitive training: an extended Vipassana meditation retreat run in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin as taught by S.N. Goenka, from which he had just returned.

Sriven wrote: “my view is that the 10-day vipassana course is an experiential way to learn the uncertainty mindset ... The experience is of discomfort (generated from ‘strong determination sitting’) coupled with reminders to focus on replacing discomfort or craving for bliss with curiosity. This is designed to generate insights (vipassana) about the impermanence of ALL phenomena and the advantage of attaining equanimity (a key element of the uncertainty mindset IMO).”

Instead of fear, anger, or avoidance, responding to discomfort with curiosity leads to a deep exploration of the discomfort’s source, and the possibility of discovering its benefits. Properly designed practices or actions (like vipassana, or committing to learning a new discipline, or moving to a new country) can be ways to train this kind of individual meta-cognition—the most important aspect of which is developing the equanimity required to perceive the world as it truly is. I’ve pointed to some of the benefits above. (And issue #3 highlighted how reality mining uses profound realism as a wellspring for innovation and adaptation.)

Individual meta-cognition training parallels what some innovation teams I study do to train themselves to become increasingly able to deal with being pushed ever further beyond the limits of their ability. These teams commit repeatedly to desperation projects which they know—explicitly—they can’t currently accomplish. Knowing this forces the teams to learn and change, to take on cognitive discomfort they would have avoided if they’d had the choice to. If the desperation project isn’t too far beyond the team’s capacity, this enforced learning lets them bridge the gap. They successfully complete projects that would previously have been impossible.

In essence, these teams use desperation projects to stimulate organizational growth. The experience of growth from a successful desperation project makes it easier to take on subsequent desperation projects. Each desperation project pushes out the comfort envelope a little more. This is uncomfortable organizational meta-cognition training—the side-effect is that it seems to also make them more innovative and adaptable. (I go into much more detail about how desperation by design works in my book.)

Last week, I made the point that the design of previous exposures to discomfort influences subsequent experiences of discomfort. I implied, then, that voluntary exposure to manageably small doses of discomfort can train individuals to be robust to unavoidable discomfort.

Voluntary discomfort seems to be the only viable way to prepare for the inevitable discomfort of an increasingly uncertain world. But, on the plus, it is probably one of the more effective and pragmatic ways for individuals and organizations to learn how to be more innovative.

Not so sombrero.

Share The Uncertainty Mindset

Previous issues can be found here. You can find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#10: Time for a change

Lotsa pictures in this one.

Yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to develop practical insights about not-knowing. The ideas below are increasingly likely to be only partially baked.

News since the year turned has been pretty grim. (Honest: I’m not even going out of my way to look for this stuff.) The copies of the FT on the reception desk at the office remind us that uncertainty is everywhere and increasingly unavoidable.

The UK is heading ineluctably to Brexit. There’s a “situation” emerging between the US and Iran (yesterday, the situation developed: Iraq is now a stage for weaponized brinksmanship).

Oh, and Australia has been on fire for months. (Researchers estimate that a half billion animals have died so far.)

These are all external sources of uncertainty that affect us to a greater or lesser degree, more or less quickly. The implications of global climate change (widespread, slow to start) or US-Iran hostilities that escalate to nuclear deployment (slightly less widespread, potentially rapid) are both so profoundly awful, that I’ll focus on the slightly less grim and more drawn-out prospect of Brexit.

The UK and EU are both large and complex systems, and they have been economically and regulatorily conjoined for so long that the details of their interdependence can only be guessed at in advance. Perturb a stable, highly interconnected, complex system enough and it will respond unpredictably, going through a period of instability before it (maybe) settles back into a new equilibrium. The question is whether the perturbation from leaving the EU is enough to destabilize the UK temporarily or permanently. Probably yes—but no one knows how exactly.

In one of the more extreme yet still plausible scenarios, shortages of food, treated water, and medicines lead to civil unrest. (Did you know?: the last relatively widespread civil disorder in the UK was in 2011.) A more moderate prognosis would still see trade between the UK and EU curtailed at least temporarily while goods which used to move freely find new—slower, more expensive, more bureaucracy-laden—ways to make the same journey. This temporary dampening will probably become entrenched since business success depends on momentum. The economy already feels fragile even in the comparatively well-off southeast and it probably won’t do very well if given a shock, no matter how brief.

A recession or a depression in the UK would be bad news. Where I work, in so-called higher education, more than a handful of universities will probably to have to downsize a lot or go out of business entirely. A grim prospect. London feels febrile in the let’s-party-while-we-still can sort of way. But the economic impact of Brexit is insignificant compared to its implications for the geopolitics and stability of the region and the world. Brexit will mush up the UK, but will also affect the EU and the world more broadly.

As a political and defense union, it is one of the four big military powers that have acted as counterweights to each other. This global balancing of powers has probably been essential for preserving inter-nation stability in Europe and the world. The UK’s departure means one strand of the EU is about to unpick itself. And the rest of the EU isn’t looking so great either.

It is distinctly questionable as an economic union—some might say the only country that should be in the EU for economic reasons is Germany. Political union has become questionable too, with the rise of right-wing politics (often advocating leaving the EU) even in historically centrist/centre-left countries. This movement to the right and dissolution has probably been triggered by Brexit and the effects of uneven economic performance across the EU in the last decade (especially in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc). And the EU’s investment in defense has been systematically low for decades because the US had (until recently) been picking up all the slack.

If the UK survives and thrives post-Brexit, it’s hard not to imagine Europe moving further right and unraveling even more. And we’ve been on the cusp of a global economic “adjustment” for at least three years. And investing in military capacity takes years, if not decades. What happens to the balance of powers worldwide if (when?) the EU economic/political/military union begins to dissolve without a dominant US invested in peace in the western hemisphere?

A common interpretation of the post-WW2 period is that it is the beginning of a trend of sovereign nations recognizing their mutual (economic) advantage in not warring with each other. Post-war stability, peace, and prosperity in the developed/western world lasted long enough to lull us into believing that this multi-decade trend would continue indefinitely along essentially the same trajectory. It became easy to create and believe in a narrative of steadily increasing peace, prosperity, and—above all—stability. Essentially, the story has been that countries come together in various associations and unions, and we move ever closer toward the end-state of a stable, prosperous, cooperative world society. Like the original Roddenberry Star Trek, much of the science fiction of the latter half of the 20th century had this as an implicit world-building assumption.

The events of the last maybe five years make it impossible (for me at least) to continue believing in this story without reservation. The last few years and decades, when set in the context of what we remember of the longer-duration past, suggest that we tend to experience periods of great stability interrupted by great change. Instead of a stable trend toward a world society, punctuated equilibrium may be a more accurate way to understand the past and think about what might be the future.

Brexit will or won’t happen (more accurately, it will take any one of an infinity of possible intermediate forms between no-deal and a surprise revocation of Article 50). No action I can take will have the least effect on it. Even for the most powerful individuals involved, the ones with the nominal control and decision-making ability, only the precipitating actions truly lie within their control: calling a referendum, signing a bill into force, pressing the big red button that says “DO NOT PRESS,” that kind of thing. But the train of events which that precipitating action sets in motion—the knock-on effects, the unintended consequences—is not predictable and thus cannot be said to be controllable. As individuals or organizations, we cannot control external uncertainty especially in a complex and interconnected work.

Even if we miraculously make it through Brexit and US-Iran this year (like we made it through US-North Korean last year), there is still anthropogenic climate change to think about (situations like Australia ablaze will become more the norm than the exception). There will be more acute and more chronic perturbations of the world, which has become extraordinarily and complex-ly interconnected and interdependent. Involuntary external uncertainty is increasing and we’ll have to learn to deal with it without conventional ideas of control.

Sometimes, the external uncertainty we face is either invisible or easily ignorable because it doesn’t affect us. If you live somewhere temperate, urban, and inland outside the equatorial zone, climate change so far hasn’t really been easy to detect. Sometimes, as now, it becomes so overwhelmingly present that there is no option other than to see it. Its existence can no longer be denied, nor it be misinterpreted as a risk that can be calculated and risk-managed away.

When you can see the writing on the wall, it’s definitely time to commit to learning how to do something new—or, more accurately finding a new life. Not necessarily because what’s new will definitely be useful or correct (there’s no way to know for sure, or even probabilistically). Instead do this to gain practice in and learn the meta-skill of doing new things and living a different life from the one before.

New means going through a phase of being not very good at all. New is hard because we’re individually wired to like being good at things and our societies are wired to reward those who are good at things. The hard part of this commitment is going through the internal uncertainty of not knowing the right question to ask or the right thing to do, of failing repeatedly for poorly understood reasons—and being profoundly uncomfortable through it all.

My suggestion is to take on this internal uncertainty voluntarily, by design, repeatedly.

If the logic of the past and future really is punctuated equilibrium, and the reality of the present is that we are entering a time of great change, then business as usual (for both individuals and organizations) is unlikely to keep working as it used to. If things get uncomfortable, it will happen fast—and we will have to learn how to deal with it.

Repeatedly choosing to be uncomfortable is the only way to learn how to be uncomfortable and to get good at working through discomfort productively (instead of breaking down or resorting to therapy).

The advantage of choosing discomfort is being able to strategize about it: to pick a discomfort that will push the envelope without tearing it. The advantages of choosing discomfort repeatedly and with gradual escalation are: (1) the envelope of comfort grows larger over time, and (2) the gut-reaction to run away from discomfort can be tamed by the mind-reaction of evaluating and dealing with discomfort productively.

Voluntarily exposing yourself to internal uncertainty—by choosing discomfort—is probably the only viable way to train for the cognitive and emotional discomforts of involuntary external uncertainty.

Si vis pacem para bellum.

Time for a change.

Share The Uncertainty Mindset

Previous issues can be found here. You can find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org.

#9: Tradeoffs

New year, new you.

This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of not-knowing. The ideas below may be only partially baked.

🎉 Felicitations for the new year and the new decade. 🎉

Everything seems to be business as usual. An intricate system of global and local logistics delivers me books and essentially anything I could want within hours, the shops down the street overflow with tropical fruit and assorted confections, the internet offers endless opportunities for procrastination. Except: under the veneer of normality and the socioculturally enforced holiday jollity lurks a sense of unease.

Brazil, Indonesia, and Australia are still/were on fire; there is at least one massive, still-growing, clump of garbage in the ocean; the previously stable US/EU-led world order is transitioning to one dominated by a China/Russia axis; 3D-printed projectile weapons are now easy to produce; most municipal water and commercially available food is filled with stuff I don’t want to eat and drink; the air in many major cities is terrifyingly contaminated; inequality seems to be growing everywhere (though the measures claim otherwise); inflation is galloping away (though the measures claim otherwise); demagogues increasingly control the politics of major democracies; governments everywhere are literally printing money to keep economies growing or, let’s be honest, afloat; food substitutes are big business; etc.

On the surface, all is prosperity and progress. Buy some narcotic substance delivered in a nicely designed rechargeable object and feel a surge of well-being and denial. Make purchases on a precision-engineered glass and metal telecommunications device, then use it to watch a video of a cat in a shark costume chasing a duck while riding a Roomba. Snack on some quality-assured meat-replacement grown in a vat, while reserving a Cybertruck today to be one of the first to ride about in style while insulated from your highly uncertain environment.

In this situation which we all face, there are two possible options.

  1. Proceed with business as usual by navigating fleetly to your chosen online video and shopping portals and through their good offices sweep the lingering unease under the rug (sold separately);

  2. Grit your teeth and force yourself to see the world as it really is.

Business as usual combines the optimism that things will be alright and pessimism that nothing can be done to root out the source of the unease. It works well until it stops working—and nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Rebecca Solnit writes:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.

(Seen at the Olafur Eliasson show currently at Tate—photo by Jimmy Tassan Toffola)

If being brutally honest, only option 2 is viable. Really looking at the world means being painfully frank about the tradeoffs you are and (this is especially important) are not willing to accept.

If you must have the profusion of children, the stable corporate job, the large house with garage, your options for being responsive and flexible are (all else equal) more limited than if those are things you are willing to give up. If you must have the flexibility to move cities at a moment’s notice and the ability to spend the bulk of your work life learning new things, options for acquiring children, corporate jobs, and mortgages are (all else equal) more limited than if those are unimportant. Good health, time, and money—which are all finite resources—can sometimes make it possible to get closer to squaring the circle of choice and tradeoffs but the underlying problem always remains: we must choose because we have limited resources, and every choice implies accepting a configuration of tradeoffs.

Setting goals and making decisions to achieve them becomes easier the more explicit the tradeoffs are. (Instead of being left comfortingly implicit and hazy—on which, see any corporate goal-setting exercise which invariably sets goals without forcing a discussion of what tradeoffs those goals will entail). Strategy, which is nothing more than deciding how to take action to achieve goals, only really works when you voluntarily choose the tradeoffs you are willing to make instead of being forced into accepting tradeoffs that you have accidentally chosen by being unclear about them.

This is true about trivial decisions like strategizing about what and how to eat, which these days has become a cause of major angst for nearly everybody. Food can be tasty, healthy, convenient, or inexpensive; but it’s rarely all four at once. Being explicit about which tradeoffs are acceptable—say, that it’s okay for food to sometimes but not regularly be unhealthy, as long as it is also delicious—makes it possible to have the occasional Zinger® Tower without the usual feelings of intense self-hatred. It also clarifies how the rest of your eating should work: mostly eat food that is minimally processed from recognizable raw materials by actual people you know, including yourself. For example.

Being explicit about tradeoffs also clarifies major life decisions such as choosing whether to relocate permanently to LA, or whether to abandon a career developed over many years. Choosing between staying in (say) London or moving to (say) LA actually means choosing between the set of tradeoffs implicit in living in London (extraordinary pollution, grey skies, being able to cycle everywhere or use public transit, proximity to Europe, etc) and the set of tradeoffs implicit in moving to LA (easy availability of tacos, abysmal traffic, sunshine, media industry people).

For those who like tacos and sun and don’t mind traffic and media people—and dislike pollution, greyness, proximity to Europe, and public transit—the choice is clear. But lovers of sun, tacos, being near Europe, and public transit, who hate traffic, overcast skies, air pollution, and media people, can only make a good decision about LA vs. London after rigorously explicating the tradeoffs they are and aren’t willing to accept. When you force yourself to decide that tacos are your absolute top priority, for which you are willing to accept bad traffic and distance from the low-intervention wine paradise that is Europe, then your choice becomes clear again. (If only all strategic decisions were as easy.)

The correct fundamental question to ask in strategy is not, “What do you want?” but, instead, “What do you think you are willing (and unwilling) to give up to get what you think you want?” As usual, there’s not a simple, clear, and accurate way of capturing what needs to be done, because it goes beyond conventional, coolly rational cost/benefit or pro/con analyses.

That latter question about tradeoffs can never be definitively answered in advance. Many—possibly all—beliefs about tradeoffs are necessarily hypothetical until tested. Move to LA for a few months and maybe discover that the tacos really are great, that media people aren’t so bad, and that cycling everywhere is possible. And that being an 11-hour flight instead of a two-hour train from France is a surprisingly important consideration. (For example.) The uncertainty of the future and of our evolving idea of our desires both frustrates decisive action and offers opportunities for previously unconsidered satisfaction.

That the question cannot be definitively answered in advance doesn’t mean it should be ignored—the point is not the answer but the act of asking of the question. A practice of rigorously articulating and prioritizing tradeoffs is part of a way of being in the world that is personally honest because it forces a coming-to-terms with personal subjectivity and fallibility. And this self-knowledge—knowing what internal un/certainties you have—is the basis for being able to use the space for action that external uncertainty offers.

New year, new you.

Drone into a new decade.

… if you haven’t already, and/or find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org.

#8: voluntary uncertainty

the lowercase christmas issue

hello, I’m vaughn tan. you’re getting this email because you subscribed to my newsletter about uncertainty in work and daily life. the format is evolving and the ideas may be only partially baked.

here in london, it’s sunny and clear on christmas day, and i’m getting the feeling that some people have given up worrying about how uncertain the future is. or maybe they’ve just become unable to recognize the uncertainty.

take brexit, for instance. with a deal, brexit is a source of great economic uncertainty for everyone. without a deal, that uncertainty is compounded considerably. will there be a deal or not, and if there is a deal, what will it be?—let’s call this meta-uncertainty. politics in the uk adds a layer of uncertainty on top of that. until the election on december 12, there was an open question about whether corbyn or johnson would lead parliament, and thus whether there would be another referendum about the deal (or about brexit) or johnson’s deal—meta-meta-uncertainty.

this last election was a non-event in london. it came as no surprise that the conservatives had returned to power and labour had performed abysmally. but at least it peeled off that top layer of uncertainty. next day, the pound strengthened, the stock market bounced up, and three real estate agents emailed me to say that there would be no better time to buy than Right Now because, next year after the election and an orderly brexit, london house prices would undoubtedly shoot up again.


[half-baked] above a certain threshold, our ability to perceive and manage uncertainty seem to vanish. when one layer of uncertainty is removed from the situation, it feels like the sword of damocles has been taken away. a sigh of relief though, in truth, the sword dangles on. this misjudgment may be because people now are gripped by uncertainty fatigue. they are exposed to too much uncertainty, and it overwhelms because they are insufficiently practiced at recognizing and dealing with it.

it’s clear that not everyone has mistaken this reduction in uncertainty for elimination of uncertainty. if you are looking for them, there are signs of people and organizations preparing for post-brexit dislocation by hedging against changes in regulations, commerce, and citizenship. some examples:

  • in the usual end of year catching up with people you’ve not seen for months, more and more mention of staff and functions being relocated to europe, especially among those in finance.

  • several people i know have moved a lot of their cash on hand into euros because the products and ingredients they work with originate in the EU.

  • in the news recently: extremely wealthy UK citizens are buying maltese citizenship, which can be done (for a price) without the requirement of being physically resident—convenient for the globetrotting plutocrat. guy verhofstadt’s comment on this: “Conservative party donors, backing Brexit but at the same time seeking EU citizenship via Cyprus. Pardon my French but ordinary British citizens are being screwed over by their elite.”

  • friends (without €1.2m for a maltese golden passport) have relocated themselves to various EU countries to acquire residency, as a precursor to obtaining EU citizenship.

if you have spare resources—money, time, flexibility to move—to spend in these ways, this is undoubtedly the best approach to take in the face of brexit uncertainty. uncertainty planning like this may be entirely useless or incredibly useful, but there’s no way to know before brexit. and the resources spent need to be spare because uncertainty preparedness is fundamentally different from risk preparedness. preparing for risk looks efficient and carefully calculated; preparing for uncertainty looks hare-brained, wasteful, and inefficient.

why do some people and organizations manage to see uncertainty clearly enough to decide to spend resources wastefully preparing for it? my sense is that they are the ones who have had enough practice at seeing and working through uncertainty to not be overwhelmed by it.

getting this kind of practice is easier for people who aren’t solely responding to uncertainty that’s imposed on them by force—like brexit has been imposed on people in the UK.

true uncertainty can be so viscerally terrifying that it helps to start with a small and comparatively innocuous instance of it before moving into the big leagues. one way to do this is to voluntarily choose to subject yourself to not knowing what will happen or how you should respond. this practice of voluntary uncertainty can range from choosing to drink wine with lots of bottle variation (see issues #6 and #7), to moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood in the same city, to relocating to a different country, to switching careers late in life.

the key to voluntary uncertainty is that you get to choose its nature and timing. this means being able to start with uncertainty that is small and manageable before scaling up—and also being able to take on this uncertainty at a time when you have the emotional and other resources needed to manage it.

over time and with exposure to progressively more uncertain situations, it becomes easier to deal with (possibly even to enjoy) the kind of visceral terror that comes with being exposed to uncertainty. not being captive to purely visceral reactions to uncertainty, it is easier to process it cognitively, to reason about it. this is what makes it possible to recognize and think clearly about uncertainty that is imposed upon you by force and to take reasonable actions to manage it.

this is not just for individuals: some of the organizations i work with are doing it too. the teams that are most successful at innovating and adapting to change are the ones which have trained themselves to manage not knowing what to do or how to do it. they’ve done this mostly without specifically intending to do uncertainty training. instead, they started by taking on small projects which were beyond their ability, gradually scaling up to more and more ambitiously un-doable projects over many years. eventually, the people who work in these teams begin to treat not-knowing as a default state. uncertainty goes from being the cause of uncontrollable terror to a source of productive desperation. (there will be more about what i call desperation by design in The Uncertainty Mindset…)

voluntary uncertainty can be a kind of fitness regimen for developing the cognitive and emotional ability to deal with both voluntary and involuntary uncertainty. but voluntary uncertainty is difficult—it almost always looks like the wrong thing to do. and voluntary uncertainty can mess you up just as involuntary uncertainty can. we teach people how to take risks in many ways but there are hardly any systematic, socially acceptable ways to learn how to take uncertainties. we all need to do it, but most probably will not.

we’re in the middle of a fundamental change in the logic of work and life. as the world becomes both more complex and more interconnected, individuals and organizations will be confronted with more and more uncertainty. only those who know how to handle it are likely to survive and flourish.

🎄happy christmas! 🎄

🎶: tafelspitzmusik

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you can reach me on twitter @vaughn_tan, instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

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